Using future trade policy to cut food prices will threaten food quality and undermine farming in the UK

Monday 6 June 2018
James Elliott James ElliottSenior policy adviser020 7630
Using new trade deals after Brexit to lower food prices will undermine the government’s own sustainable farming policy, and expose the UK’s food system to new risks, according to a new report published by Green Alliance in partnership with the Food and Nature Task Force. [2]

Seventy per cent of UK food imports come from the EU. [3] But, if the UK fails to reach a deal with the EU, and instead unilaterally opens the UK to agricultural imports as some have suggested, food imports from countries outside the EU are likely to dramatically rise: non-EU imports of chicken could expand by seventeen times, butter by 26 times and cheese by five times. [4]

These changes pose significant risks to the UK food system, including:

- Lower standards for food. Food imported into the EU is four times more likely to exceed legal limits for pesticide residues than food produced here. [5] In the US, for example, maximum permitted residue levels for the pesticide diphenylamine, commonly used on apples, are 100 times higher than in the EU. [6] 
Lower standards for UK agriculture. Allowing low standard imports to compete with the UK’s high standard farming will force UK farmers to lower their standards to remain competitive. It could result in them ploughing up field margins, or using more pesticides and fertilisers to maximise yields, increasing water pollution. 
- A bigger environmental footprint for UK food. Beef is more than twice as expensive to produce in the UK as in Brazil, but the environmental impact of Brazilian beef is nearly three times higher, mainly due to deforestation. [7] Importing more beef from Brazil would increase the environmental footprint of UK food. 

The government should mitigate these risks by:

- Improving information about food origins and production methods, so businesses and consumers can judge the environmental sustainability of all the food they buy.
- Amending the Trade Bill to guarantee that the UK’s high regulatory standards will not be weakened in trade agreements. 

Shaun Spiers, executive director of Green Alliance, said:
“Some ministers have given warm words about not trading away our precious natural environment in return for chlorine-washed chicken.  But the cold, hard logic of trade negotiations will render these assurances worthless unless they firmly commit to a trade policy that doesn’t threaten UK farming and the environment. The cheap food narrative of Liam Fox and others in government should worry anyone who cares for the British countryside and the quality of the food we eat.”
Jonny Hughes, chief executive, Scottish Wildlife Trust and Global Councillor, IUCN, said:
"A greener agriculture policy across all parts of the UK is now within grasp after decades of unsustainable farming practices have caused the depletion of valuable stocks of natural capital. It would be tragically ironic if, in our pursuit of quick trade deals post-Brexit, the UK ended up driving soil, water and habitat degradation in other parts of the world whilst flooding our supermarket shelves with poor quality food products.

“A green farming policy at home with an 'anything goes' policy for the rest of the world is unethical. It simply exports our carbon and ecological footprints elsewhere and in doing so exacerbates climate change and biodiversity loss globally. This report makes recommendations for how to avoid this scenario and I sincerely hope UK ministers heed its recommendations."

Minette Batters, President of the NFU, said:
“This is a timely and important report. While we still don’t know what our post-Brexit trading relationship with the EU will look like, and with less than ten months before we could start negotiating new trade deals elsewhere, we remain in the dark about what the government’s  overarching approach to trade policy will be – what it hopes to win and intends to concede within those deals. And we still await a convincing explanation as to how the tension between protecting our own high standards of production and pursuing a cheap food trade policy will be resolved.

“This report carries some significant findings and important recommendations. It is right that a well-designed trade strategy alongside domestic policy and regulation that supports our farmers can benefit producers, consumers and the environment. Central to that must be a requirement that imported food and agricultural products meet the same environmental and welfare standards as UK produced food.”


James Elliott, policy adviser – natural environment, Green Alliance (available for interview), 07746 351916
Notes for editors

Food and Nature Task Force
The Food and Nature Task Force is an initiative convened and chaired by Green Alliance to stimulate collaboration and partnerships along the food supply chain. The task force focusses on reversing declines in the health of the natural environment which threaten the productivity and competitiveness of UK food production, including soil degradation, biodiversity loss and pressure on water resources. Members of the Task Force are Nestlé, Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, with support and advice from Jonathan Hughes, CEO of Scottish Wildlife Trust and co-founder of the World Forum on Natural Capital, and David Fursdon, chair of Beeswax Dyson Farming.

Green Alliance
Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank, focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. With a track record of over 35 years, Green Alliance has worked with the most influential leaders from the NGO, business, academic and political communities. Our work generates new thinking and dialogue, and has increased political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK.

[1] Download the summary report: Protecting standards in UK food and farming through Brexit is available at For the full analysis please contact James Elliott at Green Alliance.

[2] In Health and Harmony, the consultation on the future of food, farming and the environment in the UK, the government proposes to use trade to lower prices for consumers, while expecting UK farmers to achieve higher standards of environmental protection and animal welfare.
[3] Defra, 2016, Agriculture in the UK 2016
[4] According to estimates from J Davis, et al, 2017, Impacts of alternative post-Brexit trade agreements on UK agriculture: sector analyses using the FAPRI-UK Model, Agri-food and Biosciences Institute
[5] European Food Safety Authority, Chemicals in food 2016: Overview of selected data collection
[6] Diphenylamine is not approved for use in the EU because of risks to health and there is a temporary maximum residue level allowed on apples and pears of 0.1 parts per million (ppm) to allow time for businesses to adapt supply chains to remove cross contamination. The maximum residue level in the US is 10 ppm for apples and 5 ppm for pears.

[7] This is based on estimates of the natural capital costs associated with beef production, including greenhouse gas emissions, air, water and soil pollution, and land use change. Some environmental impacts are not included, such as impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity. FAO, 2015, Natural capital impacts in agriculture: supporting better business decision making.

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